Don’t expect Arizona starting center Kaleb Tarczewski to play in the Wildcats’ final non-conference game of the season.
Top-ranked UA (12-0) wraps up the pre-Pac-12 slate with a home game against NAU at McKale Center on Monday night, when Tarczewski likely will take a second game off as he rehabs a sprained right ankle suffered Saturday at Michigan.
“We’re going to take it slow,” coach Sean Miller said after Arizona’s 69-43 victory over Southern on Thursday night.
“We want to make sure he’s at his best for the Pac-12. I have my fingers crossed that in seven to 10 days, he’s in a much better place. We’re really working hard right now to get him back.”
Tarczewski, a 7-footer averaging 10.1 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, was unable to practice in the days leading up to the Southern game. He wasn’t held out because of a precaution, Miller said, it was that Tarczewski wasn’t able to play.
After the NAU game, Arizona has a 10-day break before starting conference play at home against Washington State on Jan. 2.
The Wildcats entered the week ranked second nationally in rebounding margin (plus-14.2 per game), but had a modest 39-33 edge against Southern.
Miller made the most of the Tarczewski-less situation, using it as a teaching moment.
“I liked that because, like all teams, we’re going to have to play with injuries and foul problems,” he said. “I think it really showed our team, ‘Yeah, Coach, it does feel different without Kaleb.’”
Power forward Brandon Ashley had to guard the center all game. Freshmen Aaron Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (making his first start in a smaller lineup) had to play more in the post than on the wing. That’s good experience for when those situations arise later in the season.
“You could see the physicality, the ruggedness, of playing post defense rather than perimeter,” Miller said. “We didn’t look quite as big and strong.”
Although Gordon had a career-high 21 points, he pulled down only four rebounds — four below his season average. He and Miller expressed disappointment in that stat.
“Scoring is always good, but I didn’t rebound well enough. At all,” Gordon said. “I pride myself on rebounding, and to have a rebounding performance like that makes me feel I didn’t have a good game.”
Miller said Gordon has the potential to average closer to 10 rebounds per game.
“Our team needs more than four rebounds from him,” Miller said. “He’s too talented. He’s too gifted. It doesn’t matter what position he’s playing.”
Arizona has a lot of versatility within its seven-man rotation, with senior guard Jordin Mayes serving as the third player off the bench. Beyond that … well, Miller probably doesn’t want to use that depth for too long.
Post player Matt Korcheck played seven minutes and guard Elliott Pitts was on the court for six vs. Southern, but that playing time wasn’t particularly instructive for those little-used reserves.
Tarczewski won’t be needed against NAU, so the focus is on having him ready for the Pac-12.
“Just like everybody else, he’s a big part of our team,” Gordon said. “Missing one piece of the puzzle, it’s going to hurt us.”